The Washington Post

Are American embassy personnel safe?

Iranian protesters, upset with new sanctions on their country, break the windows of a British Embassy building in Tehran on Tuesday. (Vahid Salemi/AP)

The incident, involving about 300 militant students with the pro-government paramilitary Basij organization, revived memories of similar anti-Western sentiments that culminated in 1979 in the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran — and recent violence in Syria that forced America’s ambassador to leave the country.

In recent years amid attacks at U.S. diplomatic outposts, the State Department has completed significant security upgrades to many, but not all, of its offices around the world.

Following the 1998 bombings of U.S. outposts in Kenya and Tanzania, a State Department audit determined that more than 85 percent of diplomatic facilities did not meet security standards and were vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

By the end of fiscal 2007, the department had constructed more than 50 new facilities and moved 15,000 staffers to safer facilities at a cost of more than $5.9 billion, according to a 2008 Government Accountability Office report — the last significant study on embassy security.

New embassy security features include barriers along sidewalks to prevent vehicles from driving near embassy buildings, taller walls or fences to keep intruders from climbing into a compound, blast-resistant construction materials and buildings set back at least 100 feet from streetfronts.

But several other outposts located in dense urban areas are prevented from fully complying with the new security standards, GAO said, and although they use other security measures, “many buildings and their occupants may remain vulnerable to attack.”

And one of the outgrowths of the new embassy security measures? Uglier embassies.

“We are building some of the ugliest embassies I’ve ever seen,” Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) bemoaned at a 2009 hearing. “We’re building fortresses around the world. We’re separating ourselves from people in these countries. I cringe when I see what we’re doing.”

The Post’s architecture critic, Philip Kennicott, agreed, writing in July 2009 that “the generic U.S. embassy is unpleasant, off-putting and marooned in a huge, arid compound.”

(Indeed the Federal Eye’s summer visits to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad confirmed Kennicott’s sentiments. American offices in the Iraqi capital, which total about the size of Vatican City, include several large permanent and temporary structures with little character inside or out.)

More recently, Londoners are reportedly perturbed by plans for a new $1 billion American Embassy designed to resemble a “crystalline cube” that will be built in the Nine Elms neighborhood. The new site will address security concerns with the current embassy, located in the tightly packed Grosvenor Square area.

According to the Economist, “the new embassy will be separated from malicious sightseers by rolling parkland and a moat — 100 feet wide, as required.”

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

Also worth your time:

U.S. Embassy Architecture: Breaking the Diplomatic Ties That Bind Design

Iranian hard-liners storm British Embassy, residential compound

For more, visit PostPolitics and The Fed Page.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.


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